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What CEOS can learn from the College Football Coaching Circus

If I had one word to describe the world of American College Football, I would say “exciting”. If I had one word to describe the business behind it, I would say “bizarre”. In NCAA Football, the athletes—essentially the working class—do not get paid. Until earlier this year, they could not receive any form of compensation, even from third parties, for their own name, image, or likeness. That means that although the NCAA could use an athlete’s name and image to make millions from selling video games, these athletes could not even accept 5 USD or a free meal for signing an autograph. The rules around compensation were notoriously strict. Take, for example, the case of Reggie Bush, as described by Jemele Hill in The Atlantic:

Bush played brilliantly for USC from 2003 to 2005 and won the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honour. Because the NCAA later concluded that Bush and his family had accepted money and perks—reportedly worth about $300,000—from two aspiring sports marketers, he received one of the most severe punishments in the history of college athletics. The records he set were stricken from the books. Bush carries the humiliating distinction of being the only player who ever had to return his Heisman. Not even O. J. Simpson, who famously was accused of double murder, was forced to give up his 1968 trophy.

Bush’s school, the University of Southern California, had to vacate its fourteen wins that Bush played in, including their national-championship victory in 2005. Then, in 2010, the NCAA “torpedoed” the future of USC’s football programme by removing thirty scholarships, thereby punishing then-current players for violations that occurred half a decade before. The USC football programme is still a shell of what it once was, and Bush’s name is synonymous with disgrace on the USC campus, even though, as Hill argues, his legacy should be restored.

This entire situation seems even more bizarre when coaching salaries are taken into account. Just recently, USC hired Lincoln Riley, the head coach of the University of Oklahoma, to help rebuild its football programme. Since USC is a private university and is not required to disclose its financials publicly, estimates are that Riley will be making well beyond 8 million USD per year at USC, guaranteed, and that does not include contract buyouts of at least 15 million USD for USC’s previous coaches.

Somehow, in the context of the bizarre business ecosystem of college football, these salaries make perfect sense! Imagine how much European football clubs would pay coaches if they did not have to pay their athletes. Much like the CEO of a company, the head coach is the single most important position when it comes to recruitment. Business recruits join a company because of brand, culture, and status, and the CEO’s image can play a huge factor in all three elements. In college football, the single most crucial task of the head coach is not to call plays and make decisions on the field, but to recruit the best unpaid athletes to their programme. Attracting top talent wins games, conferences, and titles; building up a football legacy creates immense value. Before COVID, the University of Texas raked in 223,879,781 USD in revenue in 2018-2019, and their profit totalled over 90 million USD that year. On the business side, attracting top talent earns contracts, wins awards, and builds brand value. CEOs need to consider and cultivate their personal image; no matter the industry, the value it creates is undeniable.